Traitor’s Knot by Cryssa Bazos

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

England 1650: Civil War has given way to an uneasy peace in the year since Parliament executed King Charles I.

Royalist officer James Hart refuses to accept the tyranny of the new government, and to raise funds for the restoration of the king’s son, he takes to the road as a highwayman.

Elizabeth Seton has long been shunned for being a traitor’s daughter. In the midst of the new order, she risks her life by sheltering fugitives from Parliament in a garrison town. But her attempts to rebuild her life are threatened, first by her own sense of injustice, then by falling in love with the dashing Hart.

The lovers’ loyalty is tested through war, defeat and separation. James must fight his way back to the woman he loves, while Elizabeth will do anything to save him, even if it means sacrificing herself.

Rating: B

Cryssa Bazos’ début novel, Traitor’s Knot, is a strongly written and very readable story set during the years immediately following the execution of King Charles I at the end of the Second English Civil War in 1649.  Ms. Bazos has clearly researched extensively, and has a very approachable style which draws the reader into the story and the uncertain world of seventeenth century England, a country torn apart by religious and political divides which have yet to be healed.

The story is told through the points of view of James Hart, a former captain in the Royalist army and Elizabeth Seton, whose father was branded a traitor for his involvement in the Crabchurch conspiracy of 1645 in which groups of royalist supporters in Weymouth and other towns along the Dorset coast attempted to deliver the ports back into royalist hands.  Things have been tough for Elizabeth and her mother since her father’s death, and when her mother dies, Elizabeth has little alternative but to move in with her older sister and her husband, a member of the town’s parliamentarian garrison.  The prospect fills Elizabeth with dread – but then she recalls that her mother had a sister, Isabel, who lives near Warwick.  Desperate, Elizabeth writes to her aunt begging her to take her in, and is relieved when Isabel agrees.

On the journey to Warwick, the carriage transporting Elizabeth and other passengers – including Sir Richard Crawford-Bowes, the local justice of the peace – is held up by a highwayman who, rather strangely, robs Sir Richard and no-one else.  Arriving at Ellendale, she finds Aunt Isabel is somewhat stiff and aloof, but she nonetheless welcomes Elizabeth to her home.  Like her deceased sister, Isabel is well-versed in the art of healing and Elizabeth watches, frustrated, as Isabel supplies the wants and needs of the community.  Elizabeth was taught the healing arts by her mother and longs to help, but it takes a while before Isabel is prepared to allow her the use of her still-room and supplies.  When she does, however, Elizabeth soon proves her skill and begins working alongside her aunt – but it’s not long before an incident late one night confirms her suspicions that there is something risky going on at Ellendale.

James Hart has worked as an Ostler at the Chequer and Crowne Inn since the decisive defeat of the royalist cause at Naseby, but hasn’t given up on the Stuarts and wants nothing more than to see the King – Charles II – restored to the throne.  For the past few years, he has been ‘collecting’ funds from unsuspecting travellers making their way to and from Warwick, with the intention of raising a small force of men and eventually fighting at the king’s side when he is ready to make his bid to recapture the throne.

Cryssa Bazos has crafted a complex, entertaining and multi-faceted story in which secrets and intrigue abound and in which the stakes are continually raised – especially after Elizabeth becomes part of the secret society run by her aunt which is dedicated to sheltering fugitives from Parliament and helping them on their way.  She and James Hart fall in love, but with the new constable, Ezekiel Hammond, intent on capturing the elusive Highwayman of Moot Hill and his persistent attention towards Elizabeth, things become increasingly complicated and dangerous for James, Elizabeth and those around them.

When it becomes impossible for James to remain in Warwick any longer, there is only one option open to him; he has long since been determined to join the exiled King Charles II, and with Charles now in Scotland, that’s where James and his hastily collected band of former comrades are headed.  The story now splits into two threads, one that follows James into Scotland and remains with him as he fights for king and country as the King heads south to Worcester and crushing defeat at the hands of Cromwell; and the other which remains with Elizabeth in Warwick and details her persecution by Hammond, whose twisted, thwarted desire for her has made him a dangerous enemy.

I admit that I was more invested in Elizabeth’s storyline in the latter part of the book, which is small-scale and personal, whereas James’ consists of lots of details of battles and troop movements which I found much harder to engage with than Elizabeth’s more human interest plotline.  That said, the author’s decision to separate them throws up some interesting questions; a man is called to fight because of his sense of honour, but what does that mean for those left behind without his protection?  She also illustrates very well the effect that the royalist/parliamentarian divide had on families and communities; both James’ and Elizabeth’s families had a wedge driven down the middle by differing loyalties and clearly, there are still people prepared to work against the new regime in whatever way they can.

The principal are well-drawn, engaging, three dimensional characters who act and sound like people of the time, and there is also a very strong secondary cast to add interest and colour to the various plots and sub-plots.  The romantic storyline is nicely done, although it’s fairly low-key which is why I’d describe this book as historical fiction with romantic elements rather than an historical romance; if you prefer your romance to be more front and centre, this might not be what you’re looking for.  Overall, however, I’d recommend Traitor’s Knot to anyone looking for a well-researched, well-written piece of historical fiction sent in one of the most turbulent – and fascinating – periods of English history.

The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown

This title may be purchased from Amazon

“This summer, my brother Matthew set himself to killing women, but without ever once breaking the law.”

Essex, England, 1645. With a heavy heart, Alice Hopkins returns to the small town she grew up in. Widowed, with child, and without prospects, she is forced to find refuge at the house of her younger brother, Matthew. In the five years she has been gone, the boy she knew has become a man of influence and wealth–but more has changed than merely his fortunes. Alice fears that even as the cruel burns of a childhood accident still mark his face, something terrible has scarred Matthew’s soul.

There is a new darkness in the town, too–frightened whispers are stirring in the streets, and Alice’s blood runs cold with dread when she discovers that Matthew is a ruthless hunter of suspected witches. Torn between devotion to her brother and horror at what he’s become, Alice is desperate to intervene–and deathly afraid of the consequences. But as Matthew’s reign of terror spreads, Alice must choose between her safety and her soul.
Alone and surrounded by suspicious eyes, Alice seeks out the fuel firing her brother’s brutal mission–and is drawn into the Hopkins family’s past. There she finds secrets nested within secrets: and at their heart, the poisonous truth. Only by putting her own life and liberty in peril can she defeat this darkest of evils–before more innocent women are forced to the gallows.

Rating: B-

I’ll admit right out of the gate that one of the reasons I picked up The Witchfinder’s Sister for review is because the real-life events that play out in the novel took place in the area in which I now live – North East Essex and South Suffolk.  Matthew Hopkins is a well-known historical figure in the UK; the self-styled Witchfinder General – a title he was never officially granted – lived in the small Essex town of Manningtree, but his influence was felt across all of East Anglia.  Between 1644 and 1647, Hopkins and his associates were responsible for the executions for witchcraft of over three hundred women.

In spite of his notoriety, very little is known about Hopkins’ personal life, but author Beth Underdown has painted an intriguing and menacing picture of the man and the events he set in train as seen through the eyes of his (fictional) sister, Alice, who, we learn at the beginning, has been imprisoned – we don’t know why or by whom – and who is using her time to record the full history of my brother, what he has done. 

In 1645, Alice returns to Manningtree following the tragic death of her husband in an accident.  She is apprehensive; her Mother (who is actually her stepmother, her father’s second wife) has recently died, and Alice is not sure if she will be welcomed back at home.  She is closest in age to her younger brother Matthew – the only child of her father’s second marriage – and they were close as children, but he did not approve of her marriage to the son of a family servant and they have not been on good terms ever since.  Yet Alice has nowhere else to go, and is relieved, on reaching the Thorn Inn – now owned by Matthew – that he is willing to let her stay with him.

It’s not long before she starts to hear odd rumours about her brother and to realise that he’s a very different man from the one she’d left when she got married and went to London.  In the intervening years, it seems that Matthew has become a man of some influence in the area, but Alice soon begins to hear some very disturbing things about his involvement in the accusations of witchcraft levelled at several local women.  At first, she is reluctant to believe it, but when she discovers that he is making lists of women suspected and accused, collecting evidence and convening trials, Alice reluctantly has to accept that her brother is a dangerous and unpredictable man.

One of the things the author does very well is to chart the very uneasy relationship between Alice and Matthew; there’s a real sense that Alice is permanently treading on eggshells around him, expecting at any moment for him to look at her and work out that she is defying him in small ways, by visiting her mother-in-law, whom he has forbidden her to see, or in trying to help the women who are being accused.  She paints an intriguing picture of Matthew through Alice’s eyes, as Alice recalls various incidents from their childhood, remembers the boy he was and then, in an attempt to understand his motivations, begins to delve into long-buried family secrets which could threaten her own life and liberty.

There is definitely an air of subtle menace pervading the book, which is as it should be, given the subject matter.  But while I enjoyed reading it, it was slow to start and Alice’s frequent reminiscences in the first half tended to interrupt the flow of the present day story being told.  These passages do help to build a picture of Matthew as Alice had known him, and also to give some insight as to the actions and events that have made him into the man he is, but there’s no denying that their positioning affects the pacing of the novel in an adverse way.

But with that said, there’s no doubt that Ms. Underdown’s research into the period and her subject matter has clearly been extensive, because her descriptions of the sights, sounds and smells of 17thcentury England are very evocative, enabling the reader to really put themselves in the middle of those muddy streets and swirling mists or sniff the smells of roasting meat and hoppy ale.  She does a splendid job of creating an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty as the accusations spread and shows just how dangerous it was to be a woman in those times, when the most innocent look or word could be deliberately misinterpreted by someone who wished you ill; and the scenes and descriptions of some of the ‘tests’ the accused women are put through are harrowing in their matter-of-factness.

I enjoyed the story, but there were times I wanted just a bit… more.  I found it quite difficult to get a handle on either Matthew or Alice, and this is, I suspect, in part due to the fact that Alice is mostly a passive narrator, a witness to events or on the periphery of them, which creates a degree of emotional distance between the characters and the reader.  I felt for Alice and what she went through and admired her determination to do something to help those she believed were unjustly accused. She’s the counterbalance to Matthew’s obsessive piety, but she’s also a woman alone with no-one to turn to and faces some very difficult choices.  Her decisions aren’t always the best, but they are human and it’s easy to understand why she makes them.

The last part of the book is the strongest, as this is where Alice finally – and unwillingly – starts to take part in the events she describes.  This brings an immediacy to the narrative which was lacking before, and serves to ramp up the tension and to thicken the all-pervasive atmosphere of oppression.  The ending is suitably shocking – and I give substantial props to the author for the last line, which is an absolute zinger.

This is Ms. Underdown’s début novel and is, all in all, a well-researched piece of historical fiction told in an engaging way.  It wasn’t a book I found difficult to put down, but the subject matter is intriguing and the author has constructed a perfectly plausible account of Hopkins’ life given the paucity of available material.  I’m going to give The Witchfinder’s Sister a qualified recommendation; if you’re not familiar with this particularly dark period of English history and are interested in learning more, it’s not a bad place to start.

The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor

This title may be purchased from Amazon

London, September 1666. The Great Fire rages through the city, consuming everything in its path. Even the impregnable cathedral of St. Paul’s is engulfed in flames and reduced to ruins. Among the crowds watching its destruction is James Marwood, son of a disgraced printer and reluctant government informer.

In the aftermath of the fire, a semi-mummified body is discovered in the ashes of St. Paul’s, in a tomb that should have been empty. The man’s body has been mutilated, and his thumbs have been tied behind his back. Under orders from the government, Marwood is tasked with hunting down the killer across the devastated city. But at a time of dangerous internal dissent and the threat of foreign invasion, Marwood finds his investigation leads him into treacherous waters – and across the path of a determined, beautiful and vengeful young woman.

Rating: B+

The Ashes of London is an absorbing, intricately plotted historical mystery set in Restoration London in the aftermath of the Great Fire; indeed the book opens with one of the main characters – lowly clerk, James Marwood  – standing amid the crowds one night in early September 1666 watching in horror as St. Paul’s Cathedral is burned almost to the ground.  He saves the life of a boy by dragging him away from the flames, only to discover that “he” is a “she” when she struggles, bites his hand and then makes off with his cloak.  It’s a seemingly innocuous encounter, but one that will very soon start to assume importance for Marwood as it becomes clear that the young woman may somehow be linked to a series of murders.

The story takes place over the few months following the fire, and is told through two different viewpoints.  We meet James Marwood first of all, a young man eking out a living as a clerk in the employ of Master Williamson, the editor and publisher of The London Gazette – a man of influence whose position gives him access to governmental circles.  Marwood is caring for his ailing father, a staunch supporter of Cromwell and the Commonwealth who refused the new king’s offer of clemency after the Restoration and was imprisoned as a result.  After several attempts, Marwood managed to have his father released – on condition that he lives quietly away from London.  Marwood senior is becoming ever more confused and subject to the wandering of his wits (we would probably today recognise this as dementia), making it sometimes very difficult for his son to make sure he adheres to the terms of his release.

The other narrator in the story is a young woman, Catherine Lovett, the niece of Henry Alderley, one of the wealthiest men in London.  Her name is tainted in the same way as Marwood’s; her father is a Regicide – one of the men who had been directly instrumental in the execution of King Charles I – and a wanted fugitive.  Catherine – Cat – is just seventeen and dreams of becoming a draughtsman or architect and is desperate to avoid the marriage her uncle has arranged for her with a man much older than herself.  It seems, however that there is no way out – until one night, her cousin Edward forces himself upon her, and, after attacking him with a knife, Cat flees the house with the help of her father’s most trusted old servant, Jem.

Not long after these events, Marwood is summoned by Williamson and taken to view a body that was discovered among the remains of St. Paul’s – but the death was not caused by the fire.  The corpse’s arms are bound at the back by the thumbs and the head pierced by a thin blade at the back of the neck – clearly this is murder, and when he realises that the dead man had worn the livery of a servant in the Alderley household, things begin to fall into place.  Henry Alderley is an alderman of the city as well as a goldsmith; reputed to be enormously wealthy, even the King himself is rumoured to be one of his principal debtors, and the murder of a member of Alderley’s household could lead to embarrassment for the crown.  When another body is found some days later, murdered in the same way and also in some way connected to the Alderleys, Marwood finds himself drawn further and further into a mystery that reaches far beyond the dead bodies themselves and stretches back to the reign of the previous king and his successor, Oliver Cromwell.

The Restoration is a fascinating period of English history, and Andrew Taylor brings it brilliantly to life, his descriptions of the burned out shell of the once-proud St. Paul’s and the city around it so vivid as to make it seem as though London itself is another character in the book.  His research into the period has obviously been extensive, but at no time was I subjected to info-dumps or large sections of exposition that felt like a history lesson; everything is smoothly woven through the story and the scholarship is never put on show.  I particularly enjoy historical fiction in which politics and intrigue play a large part, so I was captivated by the author’s explorations of the precarious political situation and of the still present religious divide which had, two decades earlier, set Englishman against Englishman in a bloody civil war.

Woven in, out and around the murder mystery are a couple of other plotlines; one relating to the King’s determination to find the remaining Regicides and the other to what becomes of Cat after she leaves her uncle’s house.  Mr. Taylor weaves these various stories together with great skill, bringing them inexorably closer together with Marwood narrating his side of the tale in the first person while the parts he doesn’t know about are filled in by Cat, whose narrative is in the third person.  It might seem an odd juxtaposition, but I found that it worked extremely well and was surprised how much I liked it.

The two central characters are intriguing, with Marwood probably being the more likeable of the two.  He’s a fairly young man and wants nothing more than to be able to live down the notoriety of his name, make his way in the world and better himself – but it seems he’s unable to free himself of the shadows of the past as he finds himself dragged back into the murky world of old scandal and political chicanery. His father can be somewhat of a trial to him, yet his love for the older man shines through in his patience and tender care of him, leading to some of the most touching moments in the book.

Cat, on the other hand, is a little more difficult to warm to, even though her actions are understandable given what happens to her at the beginning.  She’s unusual in her interest in draughtsmanship and architecture, which were, of course, not professions open to women, or even thought to be interests fitting for the fairer sex; but I really enjoyed that aspect of her character, and seeing her find an outlet for her particular talents.

The one real criticism I have of the book is that while these two characters are fairly-well drawn, I didn’t really feel as though I got to know either of them particularly well and I was left wanting to know a bit more about them. But this is billed as the first of a new series of books, so perhaps that was intentional and if, as I hope, we will see more of them in future novels, we will also get to know them better as the series progresses.

In spite of that, however, I was completely engrossed in the book from beginning to end, so I’m wholeheartedly recommending The Ashes of London to anyone who likes a gritty, strongly written, tightly-plotted historical mystery in which the historical aspect is of key importance to the story.

My Best Books of 2016 – at All About Romance

best-of-2016-covers

Over the past week or so All About Romance has been publishing the team’s lists of their Top Ten books read in 2016. The vast majority of these are books published in 2016, although a few are books published previously that have been read this year.

All my choices are 2016 titles, and as usual, it was a tough list to compile. I’ve had a good reading year (I’ll be taking a look at my stats at some point and posting about those) and at AAR, have awarded a good number of B Grades and up, indicating that I read many more books I enjoyed than books I didn’t, which I count a definite plus.

Pinning it down to ten books was TOUGH, as was picking an outright “book of the year”, because this year (unlike last), that moniker could have been applied to practically every book on my list. But being I’m a bit of an angst-bunny, I went for the book that ripped out my heart and stomped on it a few times, AND which I’d been most eagerly anticipating.  Click on the link and all will be revealed!

My Best of 2016

A Splendid Defiance by Stella Riley (audiobook) – Narrated by Alex Wyndham

splendid-defiance-audio-cover-1-2

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon.

For two years, England has been in the grip of Civil War. In Banbury, Oxfordshire, the Cavaliers hold the castle, the Roundheads want it back and the town is full of zealous Puritans. Consequently, the gulf between Captain Justin Ambrose and Abigail Radford, the sister of a fanatically religious shopkeeper, ought to be unbridgeable. The key to both the fate of the castle and that of Justin and Abigail lies in defiance…but will it be enough?

A Splendid Defiance is a dramatic and enchanting story of forbidden love, set against the turmoil and anguish of the first English Civil War.

Rating: Narration – A; Content – A

Anyone who – like me – appreciates Historical Romance that has a firm emphasis on the “Historical” will find a great many things to enjoy in this new audiobook version of Stella Riley’s A Splendid Defiance.  Set during the turbulent years of the English Civil War, the novel tells the true story of the small garrison of around three hundred and fifty men who held the strategically important Royalist stronghold of Banbury Castle in Oxfordshire in the face of overwhelming odds, and many of the characters who grace its pages are people who actually existed.

Skilfully interwoven with the story of the castle and its defenders is the glorious (but fictional) slow-burn romance between Justin Ambrose, a cynical, acerbic captain in the King’s army and Abigail Radford, whose brother, Jonas, is a leader of the local community and a die-hard Puritan.  The romance starts very slowly – so anyone who expects the first kiss between the hero and heroine to happen in chapter three is going to be disappointed – but builds steadily throughout and is all the more believable as a result.  Justin and Abigail begin the story as strangers and the author allows their relationship to develop in a manner that feels perfectly realistic, considering he’s a serving army officer with duties to perform and Abby lives a very restrictive life controlled by her harsh zealot of a brother.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals

The Chevalier (Chateaux and Shadows #3) by Philippa Lodge

the-chevalier

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Emmanuel, Chevalier de Cantière, youngest son of a baron, is happiest raising horses far from his complicated family. When news comes his mother is deathly ill, he races to her side only to find she has apparently recovered and moved on, leaving behind her companion, Catherine.

Catherine de Fouet blends into the background, saving up so she’ll never have to wait on waspish, scheming old ladies like the baronesse again. She has no interest in a resentful gentleman, estranged from his mother, no matter how broad his shoulders or intriguing the wounded soul behind his handsome face. She just needs someone to escort her back to Versailles.

But Catherine is suspected of poisoning the baronesse. She rebuffs a pushy courtier who tries to use blackmail to make her his mistress, and her reputation hangs by a thread.

The chevalier wants more than anything to protect this woman whose prickly exterior hides sweetness and passion. They need his family to help him through court intrigues—almost as much as they need each other.

Rating: D+

The Chevalier is the third book in Ms. Lodge’s Châteaux and Shadows series, which is set in late seventeenth century France at the time of the reign of Louis XIV.  In my review of the previous book, The Honorable Officer, I wrote that I had primarily selected it because there is a dearth of historical romance set in that country and that time period (that is written in English), and noted that while the author did a decent job with the mystery storyline therein, the romance was somewhat wooden and underdeveloped. When The Chevalier was offered for review I decided to try it based once again on my liking for the time and setting and in the hope that perhaps the romance might be stronger and more, well, romantic.

Hélas, I’m about to level the same criticisms at this book as at the last one.

This story takes place around twelve years after the events of the previous book, and our hero is Emmanuel de Cantière, the youngest son of the Baron and Baronesse de Brosse.  We learned in The Honorable Officer that Emmanuel – Manu – is considerably younger than his brothers, and that his relationship with his parents is a difficult and complicated one.  His mother and father are estranged, and the baron removed Manu from his mother’s care when he was twelve or thirteen in order for him to be brought up in an environment more suited to a young man.  This continues to be a source of much resentment between the de Brosses and Manu is still filled with animosity, guilt and other conflicting emotions about both his parents.

Manu now resides at one of his father’s properties in Poitou, where he lives quietly, breeding horses.  An urgent message from his father’s house, telling him that his mother is seriously ill, sees him travelling as quickly as he can in response – but when he arrives, he is astonished to discover that she has recovered and is en route to Paris.  His astonishment turns to fury at the thought that she hadn’t bothered to wait for him and he decides to set out after her – and he is further displeased by the information that he can escort his mother’s companion – who had also fallen ill and has just recovered – back to the Baronesse’s side.

Catherine de Fouet is quiet, unassuming and content to fade into the background until she has put aside enough money from her employment and can afford to return to her home in Normandy. She is not completely recovered when she makes the difficult and uncomfortable journey to Versailles – a journey made worse by Monsieur de Cantière’s bad temper and obvious disdain for her.

After Manu and Catherine arrive and are reunited with the Baronesse, there is a lot of filler involving the various members of the family, their rambunctious offspring, a young man who makes improper advances towards Catherine… and eventually, at well past the half-way point, we come to the poisoning which is mentioned in the book’s blurb. It seems that the Baronesse has been ill, on and off, over the past year, and when she is taken ill again, the doctor declares that she has been poisoned. The blurb also says that Catherine is suspected of poisoning her mistress, but it’s all very low key; there is no investigation, no tension and absolutely no drama about this, even though the Affair of the Poisons, which saw a number of high-profile courtiers arrested on charges of poisoning and witchcraft, was in full swing at the time the book is set. I had hoped for more focus on this aspect of the plot, but it feels as though it’s there as an afterthought and isn’t developed or explored at all.

Something else which isn’t developed or explored is the romance between Catherine and Manu, which just… appears. They spend very little time together on the page, and even less time together alone. There is no sense that these two people are getting to know each other; all we get is Catherine looking at Manu and sighing over the breadth of his shoulders and Manu feeling a touch of lust for his mother’s companion, and then, hey presto! they’re in love. There is zero romantic tension between them and no emotional connection whatsoever.

The previous book in this series benefitted from a solidly written mystery element to the storyline, but without something similar to hold this one together, and without anything resembling strong characterisation, engaging protagonists or a decently written romance, The Chevalier is just a seemingly endless succession of flat, uninteresting scenes between the members of the de Cantière family. I really wanted to like it, but I didn’t and can’t recommend it.

Lords of Misrule (Roundheads and Cavaliers #4) by Stella Riley

Lords of Misrule March 2016

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Still tied to his desk in the Intelligence Office, Colonel Eden Maxwell has become increasingly disenchanted with both Oliver Cromwell and his own daily existence; and with the advent of new Royalist conspiracies, he despairs of ever getting away.

Then a brick hurled through the window of a small workshop sets in motion a new and unexpected chain of events. After all, who would want to hurt Lydia Neville – a young widow, giving work and self-respect to maimed war veterans considered unemployable elsewhere? But when the assaults in Duck Lane escalate, threatening the life and remaining limbs of some of Eden’s former troopers, finding the culprit becomes a personal crusade.

At their first meeting, Lydia finds Colonel Maxwell annoying; by their second, having discovered that he had arrested and questioned her brother in connection with the Ship Tavern Plot, she mistrusts his motives. On the other hand, it swiftly becomes plain that she needs his help … and has difficulty resisting his smile.
Solving the increasingly hazardous mystery surrounding Lydia is not Eden’s only task. Between plots to assassinate the Lord Protector and a rising in Scotland, he must also mend the fences within his own family and get to know his son. Life suddenly goes from mind-numbing boredom to frenetic complexity.

With reckless Cavaliers lurking around every corner and a government still struggling to find its way, Lords of Misrule is set against a time of national discontent and general failure. But readers of the previous books in the series can look forward to catching up with old friends as well as meeting new ones … while, against all the odds, Eden and Lydia find danger and reward in equal measure.

Rating:A

Stella Riley’s Roundheads and Cavaliers series of books set during the English Civil Wars is an absolute treat for those who enjoy well-researched historical fiction AND historical romance. Each book in the series is grounded strongly in historical fact and the stories Ms Riley layers atop her chosen background are cleverly constructed and closely interlinked with the events of the day, often so skilfully that it’s difficult to see the join. As well as immersing the reader into the world of seventeenth century England, she puts a strongly written and sensual romance at the centre of her books, creating attractive, believable protagonists who really seem to act and think like men and women of their times.

Each book can be read as a standalone, although there are a number of recurring characters throughout and given that the historical events are followed chronologically, I’d advise reading them in order. The first book, The Black Madonna opens in 1639, which is when we first meet Eden Maxwell as a hopeful, optimistic young man of twenty or twenty-one. He is desperately in love with the daughter of a neighbouring family, Celia Langley, and determined to marry her in spite of the warnings of friends and family who say she is wrong for him. Sadly for Eden, they are right. Celia is beautiful, vain and selfish and only agreed to marry him because he was so thoroughly besotted with her that she believed he’d be easy to manage and because she liked being so adored.

Eden’s troubles did not end there, however, for when civil war broke out, the Maxwells and the Langleys were on different sides of the conflict and even though Celia was now his wife, her sympathies were with the Royalists. She bore Eden a son, Jude, and some years later, a daughter Eden knows is not his. Celia eventually ran off with a Royalist officer, leaving her children at Eden’s family home of Thorne Ash, while disillusioned and embittered, Eden concentrated on his army career and rarely returns home.

Lords of Misrule opens in late 1653, around four years after the execution of King Charles I and more than a decade after the start of a series of bloody civil wars that divided England and its people. But regicide has not solved any of the problems that beset the country, and in fact things seem to be getting worse. While there were many factors that led to Charles’ trip to the executioner’s block – unpopular taxes, expensive wars and Charles’ insistence on his divine right to rule – England is still in political and social turmoil, so much so that many of Cromwell’s supporters have begun to ask themselves just what exactly they had been fighting for.

Lords of Misrule opens in late 1653, around four years after the execution of King Charles I and more than a decade after the start of a series of bloody civil wars that divided England and its people. But regicide has not solved any of the problems that beset the country, and in fact things seem to be getting worse. While there were many factors that led to Charles’ trip to the executioner’s block – unpopular taxes, expensive wars and Charles’ insistence on his divine right to rule – England is still in political and social turmoil, so much so that many of Cromwell’s supporters have begun to ask themselves just what exactly they had been fighting for.

Colonel Eden Maxwell is one of those people. A highly trained and skilled officer, he has risen through the ranks and is now a trusted member of Cromwell’s inner circle. He is currently working for the Secretary of State, John Thurloe, as an intelligencer and cryptographer, but as the days pass, finds being chained to his desk increasingly frustrating. His repeated requests for a leave of absence have been denied and he is stuck in London buried under the mounds of paper generated by reports of unrest, possible insurrection, royalist plots and a myriad of other dull, fruitless tasks – until he receives information of a more plausible plot against Cromwell’s life (there were several at this point in time). One of the suspected conspirators, Sir Aubrey Durand, leads Eden to the citylorinery run by his widowed sister, and in the course of his investigations into the plot, Eden uncovers far more than he’d initially been looking for.

Lydia Neville was contented in her marriage a man several decades older than herself. On his death, she inherited all his property, including the lorinery, which she continues to run successfully and in spite of the constantly expressed disapproval of his relatives, all of whom invade her home on an almost daily basis to try to persuade her to give it up. But Lydia is no shrinking miss and makes it clear each time that she will do no such thing – although her assurances fall upon deaf ears and do not dissuade them from their latest scheme to marry her off to her late husband’s smarmy cousin.

When Eden visits the lorinery, he is pleasantly surprised to find some of his former comrades working there, for the business employs invalid ex-soldiers who would not otherwise be able to find work, regardless of which side they fought on. He is quite impressed by Lydia – or perhaps “impressed” is the wrong word, although she certainly makes an impression upon him by virtue of her strength of character, quick mind and sharp tongue. But what Eden has learned from the men concerns him. Someone has been making threats against Lydia, and those threats have started to get serious. Although she has tried to dismiss them as the prejudice any woman in business might expect to encounter, deep down she knows this is not the case and that she needs help if she is to be able to get to the bottom of them before anyone is seriously hurt – or worse.

Anyone who has read any of Stella Riley’s other books won’t need me to tell them that her plot is impeccably constructed, her characterisation is superb, her research is detailed and extensive and that she writes the most exquisitely ‘romantic’ romances in which the sexual tension between the hero and heroine is built gradually and subtly. There is no repetitive mental lusting and no insta-lust, just a wonderfully developed relationship between two people who are obviously attracted to each other but who have to function in the real world around them and can’t just drop everything while they moon over the object of their affections.

Ms. Riley’s greatest strength – and she has many – is probably characterisation. She has the knack of creating the most gorgeous heroes, men who are physically attractive, of course, but who are also intelligent, honourable, kind and quick-witted with a dry sense of humour and possessed of the kind of competence and confidence which is extremely sexy. Eden is no exception, and readers who have been waiting for his story for the last couple of decades certainly won’t be disappointed now that he’s the centre of attention. His unhappy marriage and the strain it put on his relationship with his family – especially Jude, who is now a teenager – play an important part in the novel, and I loved watching the gradual reconciliation between father and son. It’s not easy for either of them and Ms. Riley wisely shows that there is still a way to go; but what we are shown is touching and very believable. Lydia is a great heroine, a woman in a man’s world who refuses to bow to outside pressure but who has sense enough to recognise that she needs help and isn’t too proud to accept it. There is one time when she makes an unwise decision – even though she’s been warned against it – that leads to near disaster, but otherwise, she’s strong, independent and very likeable, a good match for Eden, in every way.

There is a very strongly-drawn set of secondary characters in the book, some of whom, like Eden’s younger brother, Toby, and his house-guest, Sir Nicholas Austin, we have met before. Toby is a real scene-stealer – handsome, charming, roguish and forever having to step over the pile of women who fall at his feet – can we have a book about him next, pretty please? Fans of Gabriel Brandon from Garland of Straw will be very pleased to encounter him again as he travels to London to take up a seat in Parliament, and at the continuance of the strong friendship between him and Eden. One of those other many strengths of Ms Riley’s I mentioned is her ability to write thoroughly convincing male friendships; and that talent is showcased here in both Eden’s relationship with Gabriel and in his interactions with Toby, which are often funny and, for want of a better word, very brotherly.

I’ve only scratched the surface of what readers can expect to find in Lords of Misrule. There’s a well-conceived and well-executed mystery, a tender, sensual romance, and a fascinating historical background which never feels like too much information or as though one is being given an history lesson. If you’re tempted to start here, I think you could probably do so with minimal effort, but ultimately, all the books in the series are such damn good reads that I’d suggest starting with The Black Madonna. Before you’re half-way through, you’ll want to turn off your phone, ignore your kids/work/friends, lock yourself away and not come out until you’ve finished them all.

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